The Citizenship Test
Public education must instill civic virtues and shared allegiances.
Parents have recently become aware that there is a widespread, deeply rooted effort to entrench critical race theory (CRT) ideology as the civil religion of public education. A small number of conservatives have, in response, called for a return to “patriotic education.” Faced with these two options, many less-stalwart conservatives and liberals have called for a return to an apolitical or neutral education, focused on skills and competence. That seems, to some, likely to be an argument that could win in the court of public opinion. But that option does not actually exist. Morally neutral education cannot animate mission-driven organizations like public schools. That was tried, and its surrender to CRT in retrospect was inevitable. Faced with only two choices, it’s clear: we must return to patriotic education.
Neutrality Is Not Enough
Just a few generations ago, much of primary education was suffused with Western classics and religion; conveyed a clear and confident civics that assimilated young citizens into the political culture; and inculcated a piety toward inherited national traditions. This was eradicated beginning in the 1960s and confined to persistent pockets by the 1990s. What we call neutral education—training in basic skills and core subjects, the “three R’s” of reading, writing, and arithmetic—became the compromise standard: a low but seemingly solid ground that claimed to prepare students for successful lives.
But can the core of citizenship be value-neutral competence? At first glance, this appears reasonable. The United States is, after all, both a pluralistic democracy and a commercial republic; its ends are not piety or military glory, but the peace and prosperity produced by commerce, science, and tolerance. None of these seem to require a shared, normative understanding of the nation.
Nevertheless, every nation that wants to survive needs a critical mass of citizens who are to some degree devoted to it, respectful of it, and who want to preserve and serve it. An education focused on developing competence without reference to moral ends cannot produce such citizens. Without some sentimental devotion to the nation imbued through education, certain tendencies already in us are exacerbated.
As a commercial people, we are disposed toward avarice and selfishness. There should be no shame in this fact, for these motives, if properly channeled and disciplined, lead to prosperity: the promise of great wealth and honors fuels innovation in all fields. But there is an obvious downside to allowing these motives to flourish unchecked. Citizens must be taught to have consideration for their nation and its people as an entity with its own interest. No nation can exist if its citizens believe everything is for sale. For instance, people from different political persuasions can agree that pursuing short-term gains by giving away crown-jewel technologies to adversaries (whether done by university laboratories or corporations), or making high-risk investments with the retirement savings of millions of citizens, leads quickly to ruin. Education must impose moral restraints that counterbalance these tendencies by instilling a view of the nation’s common good. A focus on mere competence cannot do this, and in fact may undermine it. Moral education is needed.
Likewise, democracy disposes Americans to worship public opinion and moral fashions. As Tocqueville observed, the equality of conditions undermines the power of traditional, intellectual, moral, and religious authorities. In their absence, public opinion becomes among the only authority over the mind. But because of the instability (and often the emptiness) of public opinion, and the many cynical interests vying for citizens’ attention, the mind becomes dogmatic because it must find stability somewhere. While neutral education likes to boast of creating “critical thinkers,” what can critical thinking alone persuasively say in response to the fashions of public opinion about the nation, such as those offered by CRT? Almost nothing. Any response requires knowledge of history, civics, and political theory, as well as a developed moral sense. Learning criticism without possessing knowledge is insufficient.
One might object that, given the vastness of today’s national disagreements and the diversity of the population, the education system should tolerate—or even encourage—differences of opinion. This is true to an extent and is one reason that many demand neutrality in American curricula. But only if certain fundamental points of agreement exist are differences of opinion tolerable. As college administrators have discovered in recent years, students and faculty who no longer accept the value of free speech and inquiry will not allow rational disagreements. A democratic republic cannot survive fundamental, unyielding ideological disagreements. To rule and be ruled in turn—or simply to have basic trust in fellow citizens—there must be confidence that citizens see the world as you do. A mass of very different people will only see the world similarly if education makes them similar.
The nation must either attempt to unite citizens in shared moral beliefs and self-understanding through education or accept the destructive consequences of avarice and selfishness, public opinion’s whims, and irreconcilable diversity.
Neutral education is not only incapable of producing citizens fit for a pluralistic democracy and a commercial republic; it is easily hijacked by fiercer moral demands. To a large degree, it already has been.
CRT and related theories increasingly influence K–12 education—whether presented directly or tacitly. The Pulitzer Center, responsible for placing the New York Times’s “1619 Project” in public schools, boasts that “thousands of classrooms used our curricular materials to frame discussion of The 1619 Project.” The “origin point” of the United States, according to this project, should be understood as “the moment in August 1619 when the first enslaved Africans arrived in the English colonies.” At least tens, if not hundreds, of thousands of students have been taught using it.
In broad outline, CRT is based on two basic dogmas. First, America and its history must be viewed from the perspective of the marginalized (i.e., racial and sexual minorities, and women), who have been harmed in various direct and indirect ways by oppressor groups—namely, white, heterosexual men. As applied to K–12 education, this means following the assertion of the Buffalo, New York’s public school curriculum committee: “All white people play a part in perpetuating systemic racism.” Second, the alleged oppressor groups’ continued rule and legacy are largely illegitimate, and their institutions, laws, and opinions must be undermined. CRT, according to its founder Richard Delgado, must question “the very foundations of the liberal order, including equality theory, legal reasoning, Enlightenment rationalism, and neutral principles of constitutional law.” Such assertions cannot be responded to without affirming that these things are good.
But CRT also extends to the most personal and fundamental aspects of life: As the Buffalo committee asserts, their curriculum is “committed to disrupting the Western-prescribed nuclear family structure.” If ten years ago sympathy with the marginalized was expected, now anything short of acceptance of this oppressor-oppressed dichotomy is deemed “white supremacy.” Such doctrines undermine the capacity for love—of both families and of fellow citizens—as all of these old attachments are characterized as not only illusions, but also forms of treacherous manipulation.
The spirit of perpetual, limitless rebellion is applied universally: to the authority of the laws, wherein they are dismissed wholesale as foolish and unjust; but also to the authority of parents, wherein the children believe themselves wise. Children become strangers to their parents, or despise them as morally retrograde. Only a vision of education that supplements parental authority by encouraging a vision of gratitude for paternity and tradition can combat it.
For a nation, few things can be as dangerous as the spirit of perpetual rebellion unmoderated by any sensible moral or intellectual authority. Yet neutral education is powerless to stop this perpetual revolution. Stripped of their patriotic content, critical thinking skills and basic competence would suggest that civic piety or familial love are fool’s errands—especially at the cost of financial benefits or social status.
Citizens whose sentiments toward their nation are so poisoned have no reason to perform their patriotic duties, whether obeying the law, simply paying their taxes honestly, or serving in the military. And as CRT expands its reach into the military, patriotic recruits will avoid it, while recruiting may begin to consist largely of those who see the military as the means to transform the nation, purging it of its past stains, which reopens the Founders’ fears of standing armies. We are well down a dangerous path.
Furthermore, because CRT alleges that only unjust prejudice can explain the unequal outcomes of historically marginalized groups, it erodes the very standards upon which neutral education prides itself. The taxpayer-funded National Museum of African American History and Culture asserts that norms like a work ethic, scientific thinking, grammar, politeness, and punctuality, are tools of white supremacy imposed on the marginalized. Standards for hiring, firing, and promotion must be rewritten, which always means lowered; never raised. This is already occurring in academic science departments and elsewhere. If SAT and MCAT scores hold back Black Americans from college and medical school admissions, then the standard must be lowered or erased, as is already happening in California. The same goes for school discipline—standards all but vanish.
The nation needs competence and genius. Competence can only be cultivated through criticism, obedience, and intellectual freedom. Learning to speak, think, and reason correctly requires an authority, a teacher to correct errors, which is now heavily discouraged. Students must also be subjected to intellectual competition, which includes criticism of their views and ideas, and they must thus be forced to conform to certain intellectual standards. The principle of non-contradiction is not an invention of oppressor cultures, but the standard of reasoning. The cultivation of genius, likewise, requires not only the freedom to think daring, unconventional thoughts, but also a firm grasp of the sophisticated traditions that one strives to legitimately exceed. Great scientific breakthroughs came from people already trained in science. The same goes for literature and philosophy.
Should trends continue, scientific progress will slow and at some point halt. As our educators continue to erode their standards, we will inevitably see a decline in sound engineering practice, like for the building of bridges and roads, and in other fields where high competence is needed, like the flying of planes and captaining of ships. Beyond mere competence, so too will scientific discoveries stall. Allowing the repetition of dogma guided by hatred to subsume that delicate and rare flame, the love of the truth, does not provide fertile soil for cultivating depth, originality, and ingenuity.
We must not only eliminate CRT or require students to recite the pledge of allegiance. Because America needs citizens who are devoted to it, who want to serve it, and who want to preserve it, patriotic, civic, and moral education are necessary. Such education requires nurturing affections through real study of our greatest accomplishments and the intellectual tradition from which our civilization has emerged.
An openness to persuasion by argument, along with the mental capacity to rationally persuade (rather than merely to dupe or compel through force or fear) is rare and fragile, and takes years to create in an individual, and generations to form in a people. The fate of political liberty in fact depends on citizens capable of thinking reasonably about the common good, making judgments about the outcome of policies and laws, and resisting the seduction of impossible hopes. Again, critical thinking is not enough: one must have positive values and traditions to advance and defend. Some of those who are not exposed to such education easily become fanatics, and as they are usually the loudest and most assertive, they quickly come to dictate the nation’s tone.
This is one reason why nations need heroes that citizens can study and imitate. The goal is not hero worship, but careful, serious, and open study of genuinely praiseworthy human beings, in the details of their lives, deeds, and thoughts. The mind needs examples of excellence, in part to compare oneself against (and thereby become honestly self-critical), and in part to learn how to act and think, especially against the manias of public opinion. The goal of a useful history curriculum should be to show the greatest actions and errors of the most significant and interesting individuals, laws, and social movements—as opposed to merely chronicling mass movements, looking at history dogmatically from the perspective of the most aggrieved, or constructing narratives that condemn the past and inspire rebellion against the present.
One need not “whitewash history,” as the crude retort alleges, to see the many praiseworthy American accomplishments, people, and ideals. Nor is there any reason that high schoolers should not be reading, for instance, Shakespeare’s Coriolanus, where they can learn the essential human lesson that all societies need superior men, but that they are too great in the end for their society. Similarly, Tolstoy’s masterpiece, Family Happiness, reflects on the problems of human vanity and how it undermines love, families, and happiness. Only resentment and dogmatism would call these works arbitrary, phony standards of the Western canon. These works contain some of the deepest human lessons about how to live—not to be found in popular culture or public opinion.
The hyper-individualists arguing for “neutrality” and envisioning that citizens can all discover their own truths may wish otherwise. But there must always be a dominant culture. One should not be ashamed of this fact. The Left understands it well. Changing the dominant culture and replacing it with a new one has been their clear-minded project since at least the 1960s. In America, if it is to remain America, that culture must be built upon the greatest Western classics, including the nation’s own products like Mark Twain, Willa Cather, Henry James, and Booker T. Washington, among others. These are the lights that need to be passed down to cultivate tastes, judgment, and national attachment—and help us resist our commercial tendencies and unconscious worship of public opinion.
It is age-old wisdom, which seems to have been known in every era besides our own, that conscientious and dutiful citizens live within a knowable psychological horizon: one cannot love the present if one hates the past; and one can have only a fanatical and destructive vision of the future if not grounded in a tradition and its meaning. Education must establish lasting connections of love and affection to the nation, and between the generations. These connections are not an illusion, as it is fashionable to think today. But without a concerted effort in public education, they do become illusory.
This essay was originally published by American Compass on December 9, 2021.